Skip to main content

Toward the Virtual City and The Crisis of Place

A Review of Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 2009, 480 pps.)

For residents of Manhattan, reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City may lead to a strange case of urban anxiety. While his portrayal of contemporary Manhattan evokes familiar elements  – the oversize hamburgers, a strange smell in the air, the constant rumblings along Second Avenue, the comings and goings of apartment residents, the touches of fantasy in the writer's new novel seem believable, too. The creeping slippage of a real Manhattan into a manipulated simulacrum, a similar place that rings somewhat true but slightly off, has for many reasons become the new reality.

Manhattan residents already live in a kind of hallucination. Try to live with the everyday presence of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Times Square, and the Statue of Liberty, and you, too, will be occasionally surprised or knocked over at the sight of these highly-charged symbols of the city.

Famous actors are a common sighting, interrupting a routine walk with a dose of unreality. Furthermore, walking through movies filming on location provokes surrealist situations such as confusing an acting policeman with a real one or being told by a location manager to not walk in the park and then watching an extra, complete with a similar dog, take the walk for you. More to the point, in books such as Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (edited by Michael Sorkin, 1992), urban critics have warned of the effects of rapid gentrification in the city, a process that can lead to the transformation of pockets into amusement parks and the loss of individuality and public space.

Chronic City's character-driven plot builds on the basic strand of an urban buddy tale. A handsome actor, once a child sitcom star, Chase Insteadman, drifts through the Upper East Side, playing on his story, one made poignant by his relationship with his teenage girlfriend, Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded on a doomed space station. While she's in outer space, an art-girl ghostwriter, Oona Laszlo, enters the scene to steal away his affections. A growing dependence on the company of a brilliant stoner cultural critic, Perkus Tooth, gradually challenges his complacency.

Other characters include the volatile Richard Abneg, a veteran organizer of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot and now a sellout adviser to the billionaire mayor, and his upper class squeeze, Georgina Hawkmanaji. Because he's fragile, insightful, and feels more real than the others, Perkus attracts the most attention. Anyone who grew up reading the great generation of interdisciplinary rock/art critics - Greil Marcus, Dave Hickey, Lester Bangs, Jim Miller, Langdon Winner, David Fricke, or many others- will recognize in Perkus a familiar voice and literary sensibility.

The action of Chronic City mostly takes place in Chase and Perkus's Upper East Side neighborhood, not in the old guard luxury blocks near Central Park but east of Lexington Avenue in the East 80s near Second Avenue. The Yorkville neighborhood, home to the surreal Marx Brothers, was for a long time an enclave of German residents.

Walking east from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue to Park Avenue, the buildings may be stately architectural gems, but it's not until you get to Lexington, with its many crowded small shops and eateries, that you sense the presence of a bustling worldly metropolis. Several specific locations in Lethem's novel exist in "real life," at least for now, including the Jackson Hole restaurant (1611 2nd Avenue, near E. 84th St.) and the Gracie Mews Diner (401 E. 80th St.), so it is possible to read the novel and literally follow in the characters' footsteps.

Yet, here on the outer edges of the privileged blocks of the UES, a vigorous program of condominium development and the rumbling excavations for Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway, enabled by the city’s real billionaire Mayor, can make longtime residents a bit anxious. As with many other Manhattan residents, Lethem's characters stick to their own neighborhood, latching onto familiar haunts. Losing them is traumatic.

Chronic City invites a rereading from beginning to end, but also encourages jumping in to replay or study favorite passages - the tiger that menaces the city, the illusive and mystical "chaldron," the Second Life-like Yet Another World (the name sounding like a daytime soap opera), Janice's letters from the space station, Perkus's discourse on Marlon Brando, and many more. Thumbing through the book to find beautifully written passages or buried treasure could be compared to pulling out an old record and dropping the needle on a favorite song.

The analog Perkus is not immune to the seduction of the chronic city, but his connections to the downtown scene of the 1970s and 1980s, the golden age before the fog rolls in, keep him vigilant and questioning of the new civic order, though not always coherent to his peers. No one can match him as mentor, except for perhaps a brilliant three-legged dog. This dog, a sensual Situationist, teaches Perkus additional lessons in how to subvert the controlling urban theater by showing him how to walk where the nose leads.

While we’ve learned to cope with the cinematic recreations of Manhattan by telling ourselves, “It’s only a movie,” we’re too early in the creation of the virtual city to understand how to fully deal with it or comprehend its effects on our humanity. Location-based mobile applications, computer simulations, geo-tagging programs, Street View maps, and other forms of augmented reality threaten to turn the city into a computer game, replacing our traditional bonds of place with strategic plans to conquer them. Special places that once upon a time may have had some personal meaning become winning check-in points for someone else’s venture capital.

Engaging with strangers in simulated reality, walking to meetups while texting or talking or consulting the glowing GPS to locate oneself, may open exciting avenues for sociability and connection, but we may lose the city in the process. Dear reader, as the creator of a virtual site for exploring a city too vast for my comprehension, I’ve come to accept my own responsibilities for slipping into the landscapes of fiction. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, and the best way is aimlessly, like an old rock critic or a dog, should be a way for free spirits to contemplate life’s meaning and enchantment, full of wonder and surprise.









Popular posts from this blog

Circling the Met: A Springtime Visit to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a double feature of art and nature, the Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to be conveniently situated in Central Park. The front of the museum faces Fifth Avenue, its monumental wings stretching the blocks between E. 80th and E. 84th. The sides and the back of the museum are within easy walking distance of several prominent landmarks within the park.  Cedar Hill in Central Park Before a visit to the Met, consider taking a walk around the museum beginning on the southern side. A walk in the park can serve as a good preparation for a museum visit, because looking at or noticing the shapes and colors of the built and natural environment can enhance the art experience. Cedar Hill in Central Park The path south of the 79 Street Transverse leads to a scene at Cedar Hill very much like a panorama, with a vast wide-angle expanse of green grass and hill. Take the first path that leads back over 79th Street to the southern side of the museum. This path brilliantly disguises the motor traffi

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Visiting New York City Again on the First Day of Spring

  The first weekend of spring in New York City coincided with bright and pleasing weather. Blue skies and Blue Jays, Bald Eagles and brightened crowds greeted the new season, at least in my world. It may be a cliché to say something like “Hope is in the air,” but contrast this spring of 2021 with the one a year ago, the new mood is palpable. Last year during early spring, the city shut down, in caution and crisis, but this season feels like a resurrection, albeit still cautious. The Met Steps on Fifth Avenue Last spring, when many of the city’s residents feared going outside, many are at least partially vaccinated now. The numbers rise every day. I have been fully vaccinated for a month now, so I used the occasion to revisit New York City. I have been out and about in my neighborhood, but in terms of the public New York City, the one celebrated in tourist books and on this website, I have not ventured there much at all.  A Bald Eagle grasps a fish in its talons outside the Met Cloister

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr

Traversing Manhattan: An Afternoon Trip to the Battery and Back Again

  Wherein the vaccinated sightseer from Northern Manhattan travels to the southern end of the island by means of the express bus, the MTA subway, and the NYC ferry, with a little sauntering on foot In Battery Park, during the first blushes of spring in New York. View of One World Trade Center Residents of the far north and far south of Manhattan are the ones most keenly aware that they live on an island. The north end of the borough tapers to a relatively small area of land, bounded by the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and the waters of Spuyten Duyvil. The land is hilly and green, with an old growth forest. The Battery sits on the southern end, a land where the geography is defined by the meeting of the East River, the Hudson River, and the vast New York Harbor. Manhattan stretches a little over 13 miles on the long side and just 2.3, more or less, at its width. On 42nd Street, approaching Grand Central Terminal. A resident of the hilly northern terrain may sometimes long

Walking on Snow

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ For the better part of this new year, snow has been either on the ground or in the forecast. In the city landscape, the streets look enchanting for a day or so and then devolve into a dirty mess. This sort of snow is unappealing for an invigorating walk. A snowy path in Inwood Hill Park The forest, on the other hand, has managed to stay enchanting throughout each bout of winter weather. The presence of owls and hawks, bright red cardinals and sweet chickadees, and brown squirrels and black squirrels transform the woodlands into a fairy tale. An Eastern Screech-Owl at home in the winter forest I've spent much of the whole pandemic year, going back to March 2020, in the woods of Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. While I have been accustomed to walking through the park in spring, summer, and autumn, I've never managed to engage with the deepest parts of the forest when a lot of snow was on the ground. Last winter there wasn't much snow anyway. Eastern Screech-Owl

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had